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Wednesday, August 17, 2016


If you consume a great deal of political commentary, as I do, you constantly hear references to the “ground game.”  Obama had a game-changing ground game in 2008, Clinton this time around has an extensive ground game, Trump at the moment has almost no ground game, that sort of thing.  The conventional wisdom is that a ground game can make a 2% difference in the results, which is actually very large in a country this size.  Two percent in a presidential year is maybe 3.2 million votes.  But the conventions of on-air political commentary being what they are, unless you have actually volunteered for a political campaign you may not really have a very clear idea what people engaged in the ground game do.  Since I spent some time this weekend as a very, very small cog in the well-oiled Clinton machine, I thought I would describe the experience and indicate the sorts of practical problems that make it difficult to crank up a ground game overnight.  When the nodding heads on the TV cable news panels observe sagely that it is almost too late for Trump to develop a ground game, they have a point.

Last Saturday morning, I drove to Carrboro, a funky counter-cultural suburb of Chapel Hill, and found my way to the local office of the Orange County Democratic Party for my third stint as a volunteer.  At this point the campaign is doing “voter reg.”  Ten or so volunteers during each two-hour period from 10 am to 4 pm on a Saturday fan out around Chapel Hill and Carrboro to places with lots of foot traffic, holding clipboards, and accost people in a determinedly cheerful manner asking, “Are you registered to vote, at your present location?”  The last clause is crucial, because when you move, you must re-register, even if you remain in the same voting precinct.  This being a college town, lots of people move between elections.  For the most part, people either smile and say yes or else hurry by without replying, but now and again someone pops up who needs to register.  Since this part of the campaign is non-partisan, you are supposed to register Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents or third party supporters.  We foot soldiers are given strict instructions:  Make sure they check the boxes at the top of the form saying that they are citizens and will be eighteen by November 8th; Try to get their phone numbers, even though it is not required; Have them sign and date the form.

My first time out, you will recall, I bagged only one registration during two hours in front of a Harris-Teeter supermarket.  The second time, I was sitting at a table with several other volunteers on the main drag in town [Franklin Street] and collectively we got five or six.  Last Saturday I stood for two hours in front of the Harris-Teeter across the street from my apartment and got four, making me the champion volunteer registrar for that two hour slot.

The next day, Sunday, I went down to Carrboro to the new Clinton campaign office to be “trained in data entry” [which I prefer to voter reg.]  It was boiling hot, and I stood outside the locked door for a long while before another volunteer came by and told me we were meeting at the Orange County headquarters.  Why was the campaign hq locked?  Because it does not yet have internet access, making data entry impossible there.  When I finally got to the Orange County headquarters, I found eight or nine other volunteers, each with his or her own computer, being guided through the data entry process.  Sofia, the local paid Clinton staffer who is my contact person, had forgotten to tell me to bring my computer, so I had to work with a loaner, which did not have a mouse.  I detest using that little pad that you rub your finger on and gave up after ten minutes.  Next time, I will bring my own laptop and mouse.

Data entry consists of entering into the Clinton campaign database [adapted from the Obama campaign database] all the info on the voter reg forms before they are turned over to the Orange County branch of the state elections bureau.  Even though my four hours of solo voter reg had only produced five filled out forms, there were big stacks of forms to be entered, testimony to the large number of volunteers who have turned out in Chapel Hill for the Clinton campaign.

Now, think about it.  I am describing one tiny component of a vast national campaign network.  Since North Carolina is a battleground state, so-called, the Clinton campaign is up and running here, but there are many hundreds of such offices all over America, and thousands or tens of thousands of volunteers.  In each location, there are practical problems like getting internet access, discovering which stores and coffee houses will let you stand in front doing voter reg and which will not, staying in touch with volunteers, keeping up their spirits when they spend two hours and bag only one registrant, all the while ensuring a steady flow of effort and data.

After a while, we will switch from voter reg to door to door canvassing, which will allow us to identify pro-Clinton voters [or possibles], update our records of who lives where, and recruit new volunteers.  Each day, from Clinton HQ, GoogleMaps local maps, each with only a few streets on it, will be sent out with dots identifying which houses to stop at when canvassing.  Each evening, the results of the canvassing will be entered into the database by people like me.  THE NEXT DAY, from HQ, a new set of updated local maps will be sent out electronically, pointing the next team of volunteer canvassers to houses where a successful contact has not yet been made.

Once early voting starts, we will switch to Get Out The Vote, or GOTV, mode, using the data we have amassed to identify our supporters and make sure that they get to the polls.

All of this [and a good deal more] is what is meant by The Ground Game.  It takes time, money, a high degree of intelligent coordination, and an army of volunteers to carry out a good ground game.  And remember, all of this is in the service of changing the election results by maybe 2%.

This is why those with experience in this game say that it is almost too late for Trump to crank up a ground game, even if someone could persuade him that it is necessary.


howie said...

Alexander the great didn't have much of a ground game. Did he? Unlike the Romans- great men like Trump don't need any ground game. They win with good old charisma and marketing genius

Acastos said...

Just a reminder:

The presidency will not be decided by the popular vote, but by the electoral college vote.

Only 10 states matter in the electoral college vote (the so-called "battleground" states).

Within those 10 states, only about 25 counties matter (what Politico calls "battleground counties").

The "ground game" matters only in those battleground counties, and concentrating his efforts on those is quite within Trump's logistical capacities.

Jerry Fresia said...

Were you able to sense whether or not the Democrats constituted a greater percentage of new registrants?

Also interesting that the Clinton organization, given that it may also now and again register a few new Republicans, may in effect be Trump's only ground game.

Matt said...

Within those 10 states, only about 25 counties matter (what Politico calls "battleground counties").

Acastos, can you explain this a bit more? For states, given the electoral college, it makes some sense to say that only some of them matter, given that they are winner-take-all (for the most part), and many of them are clearly predictable. But counties are not like that, and each and every vote matters to deciding whether a state gives its electoral votes to one candidate or another, so I don't see the analogy. (Philadelphia, which is its own county, will vote heavily for Clinton, but it still makes sense to register voters here and try to turn out the vote, since a vote here in Philadelphia counts just as much for deciding PA as does one out in the rural counties.)

If, like Clinton, one candidate has a lot more resources, than she or he can devote more of these resources to areas where the return is likely to be smaller. Trump can't do that, so is in an even worse state. I don't see how it makes sense to say that the "ground game matters in only those battleground counties". Can you explain your thought more here?

Acastos said...

Battleground states are those where the spread (the difference between Republican and Democrat voters) is narrower than in reliably Red or Blue states.

Within each battleground state, however, the distribution of Rep and Dem voters is not even: some counties lean significantly more toward one party than the other.

A battleground county is one where the spread is also very narrow and the distribution is not fully baked in, so that voters in those counties can be persuaded to vote one way or another. They are, in short, the most volatile political geographic units.

Granted, in each state (save Maine and Nebraska), electoral college votes are winner take all, so all votes count the same. But the winner of each state may be determined by how the people in the battleground counties vote. And it is to each candidate's advantage to concentrate his resources to swaying voters in those counties. This is something the Obama campaign well understood in 2008 and 2012.

Matt said...

Thanks, Acastos - I know what a "battleground" state is. But, I don't think this supports the idea that counties where there is a thin spread are the only ones that matter, or where it's the best place to put resources. Consider: Philadelphia reliably supports Democrats by large margins. But, many fewer people vote than are eligible. Getting more people to vote in Philadelphia is probably more likely to give more votes to Clinton than would trying to convince non-Democrats in much more split areas of Pennsylvania to vote for her. So, a get-out-the-vote campaign in a place like Philadelphia (or, maybe, Cleveland, though I'm less sure there) is a good use of resources for her.

Thankfully, whatever the best strategy is, Trump doesn't seem well placed to follow it, given that he's devoting resources to places like New York, Conn., and California, where he has no chance. Hiring a crazed hack with no campaign experience to run things, as he has recently done, also doesn't seem like a good idea. Things to be thankful for, I guess.

Ulf Brüggemann said...

Dear Prof. Wolff,

out of curiosity: you are obviously very interested in politics, but you never post anything on foreign affairs. How come?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ulf, because even on the internet, where everyone is an expert on everything, I feel a certain obligation to confine my comments to subjects on which I have some knowledge, even if I am not an expert. I am really fluent only in English. My French and German are rudimentary, and all other languages are terra incognita to me, if I may make a little joke.

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